Preparing Letters of Recommendation

I am more than happy to prepare letters recommending students for scholarships, awards, jobs, or admission for further study.

Let me begin by generally discussing what I can say in such a letter. The better I know you and your work, the better letter I can write. For people evaluating you based on such letters, a better letter for you is not marked by the degree of praise or blame but by the degree of familiarity with your work that I can demonstrate. Obviously, if you have been in more than one of my classes I can write a better letter than if you have been in only one class. If I have had you in a seminar class of ten I can write a better letter than if you have been in a class of 35. If you have been an active participant in discussion in the classroom I can write a better letter than if you have only taken objective tests and our interaction has been minimal. To repeat, better does not mean that everything I say in the letter is positive. The letters that have the most power and credibility are the ones that can display the most knowledge of you, not the ones that can be read as "cream puff" letters. I will not make things up; I will report your abilities as I have experienced them. I will add that if I believe that I cannot write a letter that is positive, I will indicate that is the case so you can seek others to write.

What used to be a somewhat uniform process is no longer so. I can go with the flow of what the addressee prefers. I can send a pdf. I can write on letterhead. I can send an email. I can fill out a form and provide no letter. I can merely serve as a reference without preparing a letter. Whatever is requested.

For me to write a letter I ask that you provide me the following:

  1. The name and address of the person I am to write to. I prefer to correspond with the person myself, although I know that some recommendation processes specify that you should collect the letters. I will comply with such processes, but believe that letters under such circumstances are less powerful. If you have an option, you should prefer what I prefer.
  2. Some description of what I am recommending you for. This may be a job description, the criteria for an award or scholarship, or some information on the admissions criteria. Any information that you have on items that I should explicitly address in the letter should also be provided.
  3. Evidence of anything beyond the classroom experience that you wish to have me base such a letter on. For example, if you are applying to a graduate school that asks for a statement of your interest in graduate study, the text of your statement may permit me to make specific reference in my letter to interests you discuss in the application. Or, a copy of your resume or C.V. may allow me to make reference to activities beyond the classroom if I have knowledge of them. Or you may believe that a cover letter you write for the job contains strengths that you would like me to address.
  4. A statement by you indicating whether you waive your right of access to the letter. You have the right to see any letter I write unless you waive that right. Generally speaking, I believe that letters written under a waiver often have more credibility with those who read them, but ultimately this is a judgment you will need to make. Sometimes there is a form provided on which you indicate your wish to waive access to the letter. If so, that form will suffice for my needs. If not, you should provide me a signed letter indicating whether you waive your right of access or not. If I am writing more than one letter for you, you may provide me a single signed statement indicating your choice for all letters I write. I add a line below my signature indicating whether the letter is written under the assumption of waiver. Thus, I might attach the following statement: "The student has provided me with a signed waiver of their access to this letter which I have on file."
  5. A deadline for the recommendation. Please do not ask for a letter with a deadline within four weeks of the time you have the material to me. I will prepare the recommendation sometime during this period, perhaps within a week. But it takes some time to prepare such a letter with care and my schedule has ebbs and flows just as yours does. That period of time allows me to do a better job for you.

How many letters should you have me write? There is no hard and fast rule. I will be happy to write a boilerplate letter and make modifications for specific positions or awards. There is, of course, a limit to the number of applications you should have out an any one time defined by your energy in applying and by the reasonableness of your fit for the organization to whom you are applying. Yes, you can overdo it, but I can write multiple letters quite happily. If you have concern about this, talk it over with me.

You may email me the request. I will also be happy to meet with you to discuss your objectives in using the recommendation and the nature of what I am writing for. I will also be happy to elaborate on any of the advice or instructions above.

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